Presidential Responses to National Trauma: Case Studies of G.W. Bush, Carter, and Nixon

By Elovitz, Paul H. | The Journal of Psychohistory, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Presidential Responses to National Trauma: Case Studies of G.W. Bush, Carter, and Nixon


Elovitz, Paul H., The Journal of Psychohistory


Presidents are entrusted with the leadership of the nation.© At no time is leadership more important or difficult than during a period of national trauma.1 By trauma I mean psychic, rather than physical trauma, though there is usually some physical event, such as the attacks of September 11, 2001, connected to the emotional shock. Usually, this trauma is related to a sense of a threat to national identity. Leadership in periods of crisis is the ultimate test of presidents and their bond with the nation. From the perspective of psychoanalysis, psychobiography, and political psychology I will explore how three presidents each deal with two crises. The case studies are President Nixon facing how to terminate the Vietnamese war and survive the Watergate Scandal, President Carter guiding the nation through the gas shortage and the Iran Hostage Crisis, and the contemporary President Bush dealing with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Iraq War occupation crisis. In all three cases I will relate how the childhood, personality, and leadership style of each president connect to the decisions he made.

Important presidential abilities include how: to face and overcome adversity; to listen to the public mood without pandering to it; to not act in the face of overwhelming pressure to take an action when waiting is a better policy (rather like a psychoanalyst); to communicate goals; to listen; to cut losses and move on to areas of success; to educate the public to the needs of a situation; to find symbolic solutions to deadlocked problems; to find safe havens in the face of the flattering, idealizing, and denigrating of presidents; to trust those around him yet to keep his ears and eyes open; and to know how to get past the Washington gridlock system.

A presidency starts with either a "honeymoon" or a wait-and-see period when the country, the Washington establishment, and the different interest groups are determining what kind of a relationship they will have with the new occupant of the White House. It usually ends with a period of denigration of the president as people prepare themselves emotionally for the end of the presidency, which is experienced unconsciously as abandonment.2 Other issues to be explored are blind spots, ego strengths, grandiosity, personal insight and political acumen, and self-defeating tendencies.3

The patterns of presidential leadership are well worth examining. In the beginning of periods of national crisis such as war, presidents are granted increased power. Subsequently, some of the added power is withdrawn when special interest groups and the public feel that some of their rights have been encroached upon. There is an enormous difference between the fantasy and the reality of power. The public often has the naïve belief that when a president is elected s/he can bring about changes in the policies coming from Washington. The reality is that without active support of major interest groups, well-represented in the Congress and Washington itself, little is likely to happen. Even within the federal bureaucracy, presidential power is quite limited. A striking example of this occurred early in the Carter administration when the secretarial staff in the White House was reportedly brought to a standstill by the spotting of a mouse. Attempts to quickly resolve the problem were delayed, much to the delight of the media, by a jurisdictional dispute between the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture. The ability of opposition groups to mobilize support by using talk radio and e-mail campaigns is illustrated by the tremendous ground swell of opposition to the bipartisan 2007 Immigration Bill, which killed this legislation.4 These days Washington is better at producing gridlock than legislation.

On the campaign trail all sorts of promises are made in a system that rewards those who promise the most. During the week of June 4, 2007, one of the presidential contenders promised a crowd in an early primary state that they could all sleep over in the White House on the first night of his occupancy. …

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Presidential Responses to National Trauma: Case Studies of G.W. Bush, Carter, and Nixon
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